The Friends of Mr. Cairo


Those finding themselves in San Francisco with a spare three hours might embark on the Dashiell Hammett walking tour. Former Hammett residence 408 Turk, a possible setting for “The House on Turk Street,” has been razed, but 580 McAllister, where the Continental Op faced the “Whosis Kid,” remains. A stroll to Burritt Street leads to a tasteful plaque commemorating Sam Spade’s partner, Miles Archer. The peckish can stop at John’s Grill on Ellis Street, where they can order Sam Spade’s Chops (lamb chops, baked potato, sliced tomato) and wash it down with a Bloody Brigid. San Francisco, both the physical city and the one of literary imagining, has certainly changed in the 70-odd years since the Continental Op and Spade wandered it, but Dashiell Hammett is still very much on the map.

Before he was 25, Hammett had worked as a messenger boy, railroad clerk, ambulance driver, and Pinkerton operative. Notable cases: collecting evidence for Fatty Arbuckle’s defense, retrieving $125,000 in gold stolen from an Australian ocean liner, and discharging a woman’s housekeeper. He turned to fiction when tuberculosis (contracted during WW I home front service) forced him to give up detecting; government disability failed to support him and his young family. Occasionally he sold a poem or story to The Smart Set, but most of his income derived from what he derisively called “Blackmasking.” In an early contributor’s note, he described himself as “long and lean and gray-headed and very lazy; I have no ambition at all in the usual sense of the word.”

Nevertheless, encouraged by Black Mask editor Joseph T. Shaw, Hammett published five novels between 1929 and 1934: Red Harvest and The Dain Curse, both starring the Continental Op; The Maltese Falcon, his only Sam Spade novel; The Glass Key; and the dissolute The Thin Man (sample clause: “Nora stopped drinking to ask . . . “). Subsequent adventures for the real-life Thin Man included film treatments, drinking binges, a conviction for attempted rape, denunciation by HUAC, and a celebrated affair with Lillian Hellman. Though he lived until 1961, he never completed another story or novel.

Had Hammett not suffered that epic bout of writer’s block, what would those 27 years have brought? More nifty plots, more clipped dialogue, more cruel humor, more gorgeous names (Tin-Star Joplin, Bluepoint Vance, the Dis-and-Dat Kid, Whisper), more women so achingly slender they can be thrown further than trusted. Steven Marcus has described Hammett as transforming the detective novel “in the direction of literature” and conjuring an “ethically unintelligible” world in which “life is inscrutable, opaque, irresponsible and arbitrary.” To read Hammett is not only to delight in his unimpeachable stylistics, it is to enter a landscape in which narrative closure is compromised, passions are suspect, and absolute truth is a rarer commodity than a jeweled falcon.

“Will we talk about the black bird?” Thanks to John Huston’s indelible film rendering, The Maltese Falcon remains the best known of Hammett’s novels. To celebrate the book’s 75th birthday, Vintage Crime/Black Lizard has issued an anniversary edition. In the editing process, the book survived a censorious attempt to leave out the “to-bed and the homosexual parts.” That suggestion induced a tart missive from Hammett, reading, “I should like to leave them as they are, especially since you say, ‘they would be all right perhaps in an ordinary novel.’ ”

Genre turf wars aside (is it detective fiction or literature?), this is no ordinary novel. The tale features Sam Spade, a slope-shouldered “blond satan,” who becomes enmeshed in the grid of double and triple crosses swirling around a bejeweled statue. Spade dodges bullets, beatings, indictments, and the song “En Cuba” while resisting the wiles of Brigid and the pistols of fey Cairo and fleshy Gutman. The language is brusque, the jokes bitter, the writing lively, the metaphysics obscure. Lillian Hellman wrote that Hammett “had made up his mind that there was no certainty in any form anywhere.” Here he presents an amoral scene in which countless versions of the truth jostle uneasily and characters are especially dangerous when they toast to “plain speaking and clear understanding.” The puzzle does have a solution of sorts, but it’s easy to see why riddlers such as Borges and Gertrude Stein venerated Hammett.

For those wishing to join the ranks of Hammett fans, The Maltese Falcon will prove a better purchase than the recently released Vintage Hammett. (Red Harvest and The Thin Man, which Vintage has rereleased as well, are also superior investments.) Vintage Hammett offers several Continental Op stories, excerpts from all the novels, and an out-of-print tale, but plays it distressingly safe. The Op stories are pleasant enough but the mock western “Corkscrew” and “Dead Yellow Women,” in which the Op and a Fu Manchu character engage in a self-deprecation contest, would have been bolder picks. All the novel excerpts (save The Maltese Falcon) begin with chapter one. The brief “Nightshade,” from the out-of-print The Adventures of Sam Spade and Other Stories, seems a peculiar choice when one of the Sam Spade stories might have been featured. The Continental Op, built like a pickle barrel and with much of one’s saltiness, is a fine creation. But Sam Spade, as Hammett wrote, “had no original. He is a dream man.”